HolidayBuyer's Guide

Will new MacBooks finally make it easier to pick the perfect Apple laptop?

Commentary: With new MacBook Pro models rumored to be coming soon, where does Apple's laptop lineup current stand?

Sarah Tew/CNET

Now that invites for the October 27 Apple event have seen sent out, there's much speculation about what we will, and won't, see from a purported new generation of MacBook Pro laptops.

Thus far, the generally agreed-upon predictions -- as rounded up by Macrumors -- are:

  • New MacBook Pros with a thinner, lighter design and a secondary touchscreen at the top of the keyboard. That tiny screen is said to be replacing the function key row and providing context-based commands -- different "soft" buttons which would vary depending on the app in use.
  • Possible minor updates to the MacBook Air, which is one of the longest-standing designs in the Apple universe.
  • A minor spec bump may be in store for the iMac desktops.

The elevated level of interest in new MacBooks, especially with an expected major redesign such as this, is reflected in many of the messages I receive from CNET readers. Among the most common email topics is a variation on: "When will product X get updated?" And, more often than not, the product in question is one of Apple's MacBook laptops.

With their distinctive aluminum bodies and (sometimes) glowing Apple logos, MacBooks are a familiar sight everywhere people compute on the go, from coffee shops and airports to college campuses.

But if it feels like you've been seeing the same MacBooks floating around for a while, you'd be correct. And that's why interest in next week's Apple event is so high. The current iterations of most MacBooks have been around for longer than many competing laptop lines, and the lone non-retina display 13-inch MacBook Pro is still on sale with the same basic configuration it's had since 2012. (Yes, Apple still sells a computer with a DVD drive.)

That's an outlier, but it's emblematic of a larger issue: the pace of design innovation on the Mac platform has slowed considerably. The last truly new model was the 12-inch MacBook in 2015. Apple's other laptops, the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro, haven't seen anything other than minor spec bumps -- stuff like newer Intel chips, faster Wi-Fi, more memory -- in the past several years, although that may change by next week. Before the upcoming event, the only "new" Mac so far in 2016 has been the refreshed version of that 12-inch MacBook -- again, just a faster chip dropped into last year's body.

Editor's note, October 19, 2016: A version of this article was originally published August 12. It has been updated with new information about Apple's upcoming October 27 media event.

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Photo by Sarah Tew/CNET

If you're looking for the latest and greatest in the never-ending race toward newer and better system specs, that slow pace of change might be important. New technologies, including the latest Core i-series Intel processors , USB-C ports, OLED displays, 4K-resolution screens, and new graphics chips, are regularly turning up in new laptops from Dell, Lenovo, HP, Acer and others. For the most part, MacBook owners have been left out of many of these innovations.

So, as we head into a near-certain refresh next week, here's a look at where we stand right now on each of Apple's laptop lines.

MacBook Pro

With Apple confirming a "special event" for next Thursday with the tag line "hello again" -- recalling Mac events of yore -- it's widely assumed a new version of the MacBook Pro will make its debut. That would be the third major iteration, after the 2006 original and the 2012 MacBook Pro with Retina display.

Besides the presumed thinner bodies, these new systems will reportedly replace the familiar function key row with an OLED touch strip, which may also include a Touch ID fingerprint reader borrowed from the iPhone. New AMD graphics options and a larger touchpad are also part of the current speculation.

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Photo by Sarah Tew / CNET

For the MacBook Pro, that would be the first real system update since May 2015. But, the actual look and feel of the current Retina-display MacBook Pro 13 and 15-inch models really dates back more than four years. Except for the CPU and a few other component and port tweaks, the Retina-screen MacBook Pro you'd buy today is essentially the same as the one you'd buy in 2012. That it's still one of the most universally useful laptops you can buy is a testament to its forward-looking design.

MacBook Air

For a very long time, I referred to the 13-inch MacBook Air as the Apple's best overall laptop. In some ways that's still true, and it remains a favorite for students, as the 13-inch model can usually be found for under $900, is practically indestructible, can run smoothly for four or more years and has marathon-worthy battery life that puts most other laptops to shame.

That said, this classic design is stuck in the past in a few ways. Today's Air still looks very much like the first model introduced in 2008, and current physical design has remained almost entirely untouched since 2010. In computer terms, that's roughly forever.

On the other hand, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. The design of the Air's body approaches a certain perfection. That's why manufacturers of Windows PCs have been copying it for years. However, newer competitors such as the Dell XPS 13 and HP Spectre are actually making some headway, going even thinner and lighter and -- more importantly -- incorporating higher-resolution screens.

Photo by Sarah Tew/CNET

That's because the 13-inch MacBook Air's 1,440x900 display resolution is its biggest weakness. Even budget Windows laptops now have full-HD 1,920x1,080 screens, and many mainstream models have QHD or even 4K displays (that's 2,560x1,440 and 3,840x2,160, if you're not up on screen resolution acronyms). Surrounding the Air's (non-touch) screen is a thick silver bezel, far beyond what one would expect in a premium 13-inch laptop today, especially considering Dell's nearly bezel-free XPS 13 starts at an even lower price.

And yes, Mac fans can choose either a MacBook Pro or 12-inch MacBook if they want a gorgeous Apple high-res Retina display. But both are pricier, and the Pro is considerably heftier.

That said, the current rumor mill points to the Air hanging around as an entry-level laptop for Mac fans, possibly with an upgraded Intel CPU and USB-C ports.

MacBook

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The simple name of this laptop, "MacBook," without any Pro or Air modifiers, accurately reflects its strictly enforced minimalism. Even in its second generation, the 12-inch MacBook has just a single USB-C port, a single 12-inch display option, and only two configurations -- Intel Core m3/256GB or Core m5/512GB (plus a few color options -- something that may eventually filter to other Macs).

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I recently declared that it was my current overall favorite laptop. That's because its small size, relatively long battery life, and optimized combination of operating system and multi-touch touchpad controls were perfectly suited for my mobile computing needs -- which basically means hanging out in coffee shops and writing a lot. Even its shallow keyboard didn't deter me, although it's not my favorite, and it required an adjustment period to get comfortable with. (And some folks can never quite make the transition.)

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Photo by Sarah Tew/CNET

Leading into upcoming Apple event, this has been the only MacBook with a 2016 refresh so far, making it the freshest system in the Apple bunch. So an upgrade here is highly unlikely, but it wouldn't be impossible for Apple to maybe tweak some internal components, or change some pricing options.

Where we stand (for now)

Put together, we have an Apple laptop lineup bookended by one very new product, the 12-inch MacBook, and one very old product, the non-retina 13-inch MacBook Pro (possibly one of the last 13-inch laptops in the universe with an optical drive). In the middle, the aging MacBook Air looks like it might get a minor update at best (and the 11-inch version of the Air look increasingly likely as a candidate for the old product retirement home).

And, of course, if the internet chatter on these things holds up, the Retina-display MacBook Pro is now only about a week away from a major revision.

It's also worth noting that old or new, MacBooks and Mac desktops have made the switch to MacOS, the new operating system which has replaced the old OS X naming convention. The initial version of that is named Sierra, and includes many new features, from Siri support to a universal iPhone-to-Mac clipboard. MacOs is available now as a free update.

And while we're all very interested in a potential new MacBook Pro, allow me to take you on a little Mac-related tangent. Aside from the "When will product X get updated?" question, the other very frequent question I get is "Why won't Apple make exactly the laptop I want?" In most cases, that means a MacBook Air with a Retina display. I'd argue that Apple already effectively makes that product -- it's the 12-inch MacBook, which may eventually become the default mainstream Mac laptop.

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The 12-inch MacBook meets the 13-inch MacBook Air.

Photo by Sarah Tew/CNET

This is something of a controversial opinion, but hear me out. Sure, the 12-inch MacBook doesn't have as many ports, and you might end up with a pocket full of dongles. That can get legitimately annoying (although we all said the same thing when Ethernet ports started disappearing from laptops). But over the past year alone, USB-C has gained great traction, and some of my favorite Windows laptops (such as the HP EliteBook Folio G1) are also going with very limited ports. Check back in another year or two, and having one or two USB-C ports on a laptop, and nothing else, will probably feel like the new normal.

The real reason you probably don't think the new MacBook is the Retina version of the Air you've always wanted is simple -- price. The 13-inch Air is $999 in the US (and you can often find it for less), while the MacBook starts at $1,299. That's a big jump (though, remember, you are getting double the storage), and flies in the face of the current laptop trend of offering more for less (as in this great budget Dell Inspiron 7000).

I think the real frustration is that what you're really looking for is not a MacBook Air with a Retina display, but rather a MacBook Air with a Retina display that costs the same as the 5-year-old Air you're replacing. You may not ever find it, but for what it's worth, I'd line up to buy that, too.

But in a week, we could have a similar buyers' dilemma -- or a totally different landscape. It's going to be interesting, either way.